Christmas trees need care for prime shape

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 17 2009 12:16 a.m. MST

The Noble fir is one variety of Christmas tree that Ken Brown, a retired extension agent, grows on his farm in Oregon.

Larry Sagers

While the notion of hooking up old Dobbin to the bobsled and driving into the forest to cut down that perfect tree might be romantic, Christmas-tree harvesting now takes place on thousands of tree farms across the country.

This month, Christmas-tree growers are carefully selecting the trees from their farms. They harvest them, wrap them and ship them to sellers across the nation.

According to the National Christmas Tree Growers Association, approximately 25 million to 30 million trees will be harvested and sold this year.

Equally important is the fact that there are almost 350 million Christmas trees growing on farms in the United States

Earlier this fall, I had a chance to visit Ken Brown's Christmas-tree farm in Oregon. Brown is a retired Oregon State University Extension Service agent and spends his time growing trees on acres of land in eastern Oregon.

He freely admits that his is a hobby farm where he harvests a few hundred trees each season.

"I am not one of the big producers. In fact, one grower across the way harvests more than 350,000 trees each year," he said.

Tree farming is big business in Oregon. The state is the largest producer of Christmas trees in the country. The farms cover almost 67,000 acres in the state, and in 2007, there were 6,850,841 trees harvested from more than 1,300 tree farms there. Some of the trees are coming to a seller near you.

While most people don't think of Christmas trees as a crop, they grow like other crops.

"Trees need the same thing that other crops need, so I work on ways to control the weeds and other pests," Brown said.

"You also have to pay attention to the soil and grow the trees that are adapted to your area. Different areas have different kinds of soil and need different treatments. Trees need fertilizer, and you must add what they need to make them grow well," he said.

Brown added that he used to grow mostly Noble firs, but he's switching to growing Nordman firs, which are better adapted to his farm.

"Nordman fir comes from the Caucasus Mountains in Turkey and the Republic of Georgia. The trees have dark-green, shiny needles and shear up real nice. They also hold their needles real well, so people like them for that," he said.

But he still has a other kinds of trees on his farm. "The Grand fir is nice, but the needles tend to burn on our site because it is a little windier here. We also have a few white firs and some Douglas fir."

Following him around the farm gave me an appreciation for all the hard work and time that goes into producing this crop. Brown is always trying to make improvements in the trees he grows.

"Conifers seeds are sometimes tricky to harvest and germinate," he explained. "It is easier to buy seedlings, but I want to try to improve some of the kind that I am growing. In fact, I would like to grow some of these and harvest and sell the seeds to other growers."

While different species grow at different rates, all trees take time.

Growth rates vary, depending on the species being grown, the growing site and the size the tree needs to be at harvest time. Water, fertilizer and temperature all affect the ultimate growth rate.

After germinating the seeds and growing trees in the beds, Brown transplants them to their permanent growing areas.

Once that's done, you might think he just stands back and watches them grow, but one of the most important parts of producing a good crop of trees is to shape them.

Brown suited up and gave a shearing demonstration. His protective legging ensured the razor-sharp knife would remove the unwanted ends of the tree branches and not part of his anatomy.

Brown explained that an annual shearing is critical to provide a well-shaped tree with relatively short, stiff branches to support the lights and ornaments. It is also important to maintain the central leader of the tree, to help it grow well.

Even after trees are grown, they must be harvested and marketed. He demonstrated two pieces of equipment that make for a better Christmas tree. His tree shaker quickly removed all of the dead needles typically found on the interior of the tree, to keep it cleaner when you put it in the stand in your home.

After a thorough shaking, the tree then makes a short trip through the tree baler. It emerges in a tightly wrapped bundle that protects the tree branches and makes it easier to transport.

The time-honored Christmas tree is certain to be around and making our season much more festive as long as these tree growers continue to grow these plants. Remember their work as you buy your tree this year.

Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.

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